Politics & Policy

The Un-Clinton

John Kerry's woman problem.

As the summer heats up, women voters may be cooling to John Kerry’s White House bid, according to some new national polls. The studies suggest a weakening in the senator’s standing among females in the past month–a confounding finding for gender-gap aficionados, but one consistent with anecdotal views among operatives and pundits that Mr. Kerry has trouble connecting with voters. The new data suggest his “connecting” conundrum may be more acute than previously thought among Democratic women.

The numbers also may underscore why Kerry selected Senator John Edwards as his running mate this week. Despite some obvious shortcomings on the experience front, the North Carolina senator adds some much needed sizzle among the voters critical to a Kerry win. Whether the Edwards pick will ultimately help with women voters is an open question, but the Kerry campaign clearly thinks it will.

In a head-to-head ballot test, a Pew Research poll (conducted June 3-13, 2004) shows President Bush gaining 11 net points against Senator Kerry in the past month among women voters (May–Bush 41 percent, Kerry 53 percent (-12 percent), June–Bush 46 percent, Kerry 47 percent (-1 percent).

These findings are consistent with the trend in my research demonstrating President Bush moving about the same net amount among women registered voters between May and June (May–Bush 43 percent, Kerry 46 percent; June–Bush 47 percent, Kerry 37 percent; AMR Research nationwide polls, May and June, 800 registered voters, 3.5% margin of error).

Yet looking a little deeper into the sex and party differences underlying these numbers is revealing, particularly in terms of female voters.

Pundits and operatives note that “John Kerry has a serious likeability problem. Many voters see him as cold, aloof, and distant,” said pollster John Zogby, adding, “This complaint has dogged the Massachusetts Senator throughout his political career.”

At some deeper level he fails to connect. Some consider him unfriendly, others say it’s an air of arrogance, and those with more of a sportsman’s orientation say he’s just a “cold fish.” Whatever the case, like pornography, you can’t define it until you see the Massachusetts senator on television.

Nevertheless, survey research can tap into these concepts by asking voters such questions as, “who would you like your children or friends’ children to grow up most like,” or, “who would you like to spend an hour with.” The results are illuminating.

On both questions of “likeability,” President Bush does well overall in the AMR survey. On the first question, President Bush bests Senator Kerry by 14 points (43 percent to 29 percent). Turning to the second question, Bush trounces Kerry by a whopping 24 points: 52 percent to 28 percent.

Yet when you break down the numbers by sex and party some even more interesting patterns emerge. Among Republicans, there is no difference on either question–a large percentage of GOP men and women (between 81 percent and 85 percent, depending on the question) want their kids to grow up like Bush or want to spend time with him.

Among Democrats, however, not only are the overall affirmative percentages on both questions lower, but some significant sex differences emerge. While 70 percent of Democratic men want their kids to grow up like Kerry, only 46 percent of Democratic women do–a 24 percentage-point difference. And 62 percent of Democratic men want to spend an hour with Kerry, while only 49 percent of that party’s women voters do.

One female Democratic lobbyist told me she chalked these problems up to Kerry not talking a lot about issues that excite “Democratic women base voters.” “They care about ‘choice,’ education, and health care. Kerry has been trying to sound more like a moderate and not hitting on these themes.”

Perhaps. And, if so, John Edwards may help Kerry here. But it’s also possible that Democratic women also care about a lot of other things, and while they may not be poised to vote for President Bush, John Kerry is not floating their boats either.

Kerry is counting on a high-octane showing among Democratic women to fuel his trip to the White House–his campaign website sells bumper stickers and buttons that say “John Kerry: It’s up to the women”–yet these numbers suggest he’s spinning his wheels. It’s still early in the campaign season, but so far, Democratic women are speaking a language that translates to reelecting President Bush.

Gary Andres is vice chairman of policy and research at the Dutko Group Companies in Washington, D.C., and holds a Ph.D. in public policy from the University of Illinois-Chicago.


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